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Executive functions

In this page …

We have a lot to think about

Most days we do a mixture of things. A lot of them are the same or very like things we have done before, like brushing our teeth or packing a bag to go somewhere. What we pack in our bags might change, for swimming or for different classes at school for example. But, how we go about packing it is more or less the same every time. At other times we have to do something we’ve never done before, like getting the bus to a new friend’s house or learning a new thing in maths. What all these things have in common is that they have a goal: there is something definite that needs to happen.

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Thinking and acting with purpose

In anything we do, our brain has to work out what to do so that we can achieve our goals. The brain needs to organise our thoughts and actions in the best way possible. To do this there is a ‘command centre’ in the front parts of the brain (frontal lobes). The ‘command centre’ uses special processes called ‘executive functions’ to take charge. They take control of the brain’s functions (eg seeing, hearing, movement, language) and cognitive processes (eg attention, comprehension). They do this by sending signals that tell them:

  • to start or stop
  • what speed to go at
  • what order they need to work in, or
  • when they need to work together in parallel (and how)
  • when something changes

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Taking command

By directing what other brain functions and cognitive processes are doing, executive functions control:

  • which senses we need to be using
  • what we need to pay most attention to and for how long
  • access to memories or knowledge that help us to understand the new information
  • holding information in working memory long enough to come up with ideas for achieving the current goal
  • weighing up which idea will work best and turning it into a plan that will achieve goals
  • holding the plan in working memory while it is put into action (initiated) and to make sure we do things in the right order or sequence
  • Comparing what we hoped would happen with what actually happens. If it isn’t working out as we had planned, our executive functions may ‘tell’ our cognitive processes to switch what they are doing: to stop one action and start another

The list above shows how complicated the brain’s processing is. If the brain’s functions and cognitive processes were the musicians in an orchestra, the ‘executive functions’ might be thought of as the conductor. Executive functions get the best from other processes by getting them to ‘play’ at the right time, ‘volume’ and ‘tempo’ to get the best ‘harmony’: they initiate, maintain or switch between functions and cognitive processes to get the desired result.

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When something goes wrong

A child with hydrocephalus who struggles doing even simple things in daily life may have problems with their executive functions or their cognition. It can be tricky to tell which bits are not working properly. The pages in this section look at the controlling executive functions of: initiation; planning, sequencing and monitoring; set switching and working memory. Details on other cognitive processes can be found from the links shown in the text or by going to the cognition section.

Looking at how different processes are used to make us think and act may help you understand why your child behaves the way they do. It might also help you think about ways that your child could be supported. More links between what we do (how we behave) and what is happening in our brains can be found in the living with hydrocephalus section.

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